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John (Giovanni) Pergolini – my grandfather the tailor

Two recent articles have inspired me to write about my late grandfather John Pergolini, longtime tailor.

First, a review of a documentary about Italian tailors, which I have yet to see (Men of the Cloth – a film by Vicky Vasilopolos). The review is written by fellow Abruzzophile Helen Free on the Abruzzo Blogger Community site.

Second, an article on Teramonews.com details honours given to the 105 year old Master Tailor (Maestro Sarto) Altobrando Rapagnà in the little village of Montepagano, in the Teramo region of Abruzzo, my grandfather’s and Maestro Rapagnà’s home town.

My big sister Ann and I have great memories of our grandfather (Pop Pop we called him) and his wonderful creations. Nowadays we live on other sides of the world from one another (thank heavens for Skype, eh) but we share a love of family history. Being close in age, we have many similar memories.

Ann recently told me that it was Pop Pop who encouraged our mother Louise to buy a sewing machine for us when we were pre-teens because Ann had already expressed a wish to learn to sew. We both took lesson from the local Singer Sewing Machine school but Pop Pop taught us the real secrets to good tailoring and how to properly finish our work. He would magically pull a bit of thread out and unfurl your morning’s work, telling you to do better if your sewing was not to his standard. He was incredulous that we had learned how to make buttonholes with a machine and not by hand!

Family legend goes that Pop Pop refused to make our mother’s wedding dress because he was worried he wouldn’t do a good job. The lace and other fabric for the dress had been a gift from a family friend in the cloth trade and was quite valuable. When Louise went to her final fitting the day before the wedding Pop Pop went with her. He was not happy with the outcome. They accepted the dress then once at home, Pop Pop took it apart and remade it, cursing in Italian that he should have done it himself in the first place.

Ann and I have been to Italy many times now, together and separately. We’ve met cousins and uncles and exchanged stories, picking up more information and language on each visit. Although we have both studied Italian, we are far from fluent. We were telling a cousin about our grandfather’s habit of always touching our clothing (or our friend’s clothing) to decide the quality of the cloth. If Pop Pop liked the fabric he would say in English, with his thick accent “nice-a  stuff-a”. We learned that day in Italy that the Italian word for fabric or material or cloth was ‘stoffa’.  All along he had been speaking Italian to us but we had never realised it! How much more did we miss?

When we were small, we would often have a new outfit of clothing at Easter and Christmas, mostly overcoats and snow pants made of wool which Pop Pop had leftover from big bolts ordered for his home tailoring business.  We might be lucky to have a bit of pale blue wool and some navy trim on a lightweight wool jacket, or a tweed winter coat, hat and snow pants that we could zip at the leg to put on over our shoes. I’ll never forget some of the great outfits we had and some of my mother’s fabulous coats and jackets.

Below I’m sporting a coat, pants and hat fit for a Pennsylvania winter!

Me at about age 3 in one of Pop Pop's creations. A winter coat and snow pants fit for a Pennsylvania winter.

Me at about age 3 in one of Pop Pop’s creations

After my grandparents were both gone, some of Pop Pop’s old artefacts such as tailoring tools, a button box and old photos from the Italian Tailors Beneficial Society of West Philadelphia’s annual dinner dance, ended up with Ann.

Being clever and an artist, Ann has made a few ‘oggetti d’arte’ to commemorate our grandfather and his ‘forbici d’oro’ – golden scissors. Click on any of the photos to enlarge.

A tailor can never give up his art and craft completely. Up to the age of 90 Pop Pop could be found at his local dry cleaner’s shop in Atlantic City New Jersey where he had retired after our grandmother died. Sitting by the sewing machine he would replace missing buttons and repair buttonholes by hand.

Right up to his death at age 93, Pop Pop put on his suit each day. Under his lapel he always had hidden two sewing needles. In his pockets were a thimble and a scrap of paper wound with some black and some white thread. He was always ready.

Now, the art and craft of the tailor may be endangered. Let’s hope it’s not.

The simple things

Out of sheer necessity, my mother Louise Pergolini, made simple meals at home. She was usually feeding anywhere from eight to 12 people each day.

When she knew she’d be home for a few hours, she’d often made a big stock pot of sugo, an all-purpose tomato sauce for pasta meals or braised meat dishes. It normally contained, depending on the season, whole fresh or tinned tomatoes, a soffritto of onion, carrot and celery (aka the holy trinity), a bit of fresh garlic, bay leaf, salt, pepper, dried oregano and basil plus a bit of red wine. Depending on what was in the fridge, it might have been enhanced with some spicy pork sausages or some pork ribs, or both. Or there may have been time to make meatballs, consigning a few of us kids to help form the little balls of pork and veal. Some of the sugo was for the evening meal and some was destined for the freezer to provide quick week-night meals.

Our stock pot was enormous and the long wooden stirrer was nearly immersed to reach the bottom. The smell was divine and us kids couldn’t resist nipping past with a corner of crusty white continental bread and dipping into the pot for a taste. I’m sure all mothers have ears in the back of their heads because Louise would sing out just as we dunked, “Hands out of the pot. There won’t be any left for dinner”.

Fast forward to 2014. The work week is busy for my husband and I, so when we have time in the kitchen together, we like to get a nice pot of sugo simmering. This weekend, it started with the soffritto of onion, carrot and celery. Then we browned some pork ribs procured earlier in the day from our Italian butcher, Marino Meats at the Adelaide Central Market. We added a few tins of whole tomatoes; some herbs – oregano, basil, thyme (both fresh and dried from our garden); a dash of Tempranillo (OK, it’s not Italian, but it was open!); garlic; red hot chillies from the garden and some dried pepperoncini. Everyone has a favourite recipe, probably like your grandmother’s with seasonal variations and accounting for heat.

While the sauce simmered away and filled the house with savoury aromas, Andrew got on to the pasta. A local grain grower Pankarra, stone mills their own wholegrain durum wheat. Combining the Pangkarra with equal parts of ’00’ flour from Molini Pizzuti we have found works well for different shapes of pasta. Add fresh eggs from our friend Ben’s chooks.

Salted water boiling, pasta in, garden-fresh parsley chopped, cheese grated and ‘voila!’, dinner.

Sometimes the simplest things are the most satisfying.